“Tonight We May be Showmen; Tomorrow We’ll be Servicing Your Cars”

Picture 3A few days ago I was online discussing with a grad of our Department how advertising works in media — i.e., how it is not difficult to understand the content of, say, a newspaper, website, or television as simply serving the role of bringing the eyes of readers or viewers (in fact, let’s just call them consumers) to the ads which finance the medium in the first place. (In this day and age of cable fees and Netflix or Hulu subscriptions it’s likely hard for some to believe that TV was originally just cast broadly, like seeds [aka “broadcast”] over the so-called airwaves for free and anyone with an antenna and receiver [that is, a television set] got it for free.) It’s an old analysis, of course, one I first recall thinking about in earnest when watching, “Manufacturing Consent” back when the film first came out, in Toronto, back in 1992. (The entire documentary is here.)

To sum it up we can quote Chomsky himself:

What keeps the media functioning is not the audience; they make money from their advertisers…. So what you have is institutions, corporations, big corporations, that are selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses. Well what point of view would you expect to come out of this? Without any further assumptions what you’d predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs, the interests, and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers, and the product. (quoting from about the 42:50 point of the film)

This is the sort of analysis that prompts us to completely change the way we understand media — for example, no longer seeing commercials as separate from the programming, as if they’re “interrupting” the TV show, but, instead, as making explicit, for 30 seconds, the medium’s actual purpose (to make a profit for advertisers [who are selling products to viewers] and broadcasters [who are selling viewers to advertisers]). Now, the commercials and the program can be seen as seamlessly integrated and mutually supporting.

Moral of the story?

You don’t put a Rolex watch ad on during kid’s shows, for that’s hardly a good use of your advertising budget; no, that’s when you sell the action figures, the board games, or the app on which the cartoon is based.

barbieWhat occurred to me in discussing this is how evident this all was in the early days of television, back when the star of the live show simply turned to another camera or walked over to a different set, in the same costume or with something quickly thrown over his suit or her dress, and pitched cigarettes or soap to the audience, and then returned to the TV show’s set when the (by today’s standards at least) surprisingly long commercial was over.

Consider this early pitch for SOS scrubbing pads (then owned by General Foods) from the once popular Garry Moore variety show, in which the host comes in as the third operatic viking, toward the end of the skit (or is it a commercial? — that’s the question!), in a wig, and then, after sitting down at his desk, removes the wig and moves straight into the show’s content — though not without first tipping his hat to the advertising agency who wrote the bit.

So the role that the sponsor played in those early days (i.e., the late 1940s, and 50s) was all too apparent to viewers; for another example, do you know about Milton Berle, then the most popular comedian in the US (once dubbed Mr. Television, in fact), and his early TV variety show? (Notice the curtain in the previous clip and the one below, by the way, and how such TV shows were modeled on live theater, much as movie musicals back then were often set as if you were watching a Broadway musical being written mounted — nicely making evident how one medium [say, first Vaudeville and then radio, where Garry Moore and Milton Berle were already big stars] gives birth to, or relies upon, another [such as television or the web]). Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” opened and closed each week with the “men from Texaco” entering and signing their catchy little song.

Or have you seen this classic, in which the characters themselves sell the product:

What’s interesting here is how, over time, the actors continue to sell products on television, of course, but generally not doing so in character — that is, we don’t see Don Draper selling cars but we do hear Jon Hamm narrating Mercedes commercials. To rephrase it, if we recall Chomsky’s above analysis of the medium then the curious thing is how, over time and as the medium and those who create it are increasingly professionalized and monetized, as shows are performed and taped and then edited for broadcast later, a compartmentalization occurs, allows us to institute apparent divisions into what previously had just been a seamless show that included skits and ads, all performed (and, for all we know, to some extent written) by much the same people.

And thus is born the “commercial break.”

“We’ll be back after a few words form our sponsor…”

And so we arrive at the present, when we “see” commercials as interrupting our shows, as if these are two separate things, and when we have technologies that allow us to fast forward through and feel like we’ve skipped the ads. But, again, thinking back to Chomsky, we recall that, today as much as yesterday, the entire program is actually the ad — something many of us have lost sight of, such that we now talk about “product placement” while, in the early years of the medium, the whole show’s effort to pull the sled of what was once called the Texas Fuel Company was so apparent to everyone that you didn’t need to sneak a Coke bottle or a GM car into a scene.

Picture 5So what’s my point?

If we can understand what happened in this medium that allowed viewers to come to see the ads as distinct from the very content that they make possible, and if we can identify what advantages there were to, over time, creating conditions that seemed to set apart one portion of the medium from the other, as if there were two distinct things that could or could not interact in this or that way (“It’s a commercial break — time to go to the bathroom!”), then maybe we’ll have a model for understanding this thing we call secularism today, a situation where some social practices and institutions are classified in this way, and set apart as a group over there, while others are named in that way and kept over here.

That is, if we don’t begin from a starting point that assumes religion is somehow uniquely different and therefore ought to be distinguished from other aspects of social life (whether to protect and promote it or to banish and forbid it) but, rather, with the starting point that sees all social life — much like those early variety shows on TV — as homogenous then we start to get interested the development of the compartments themselves, asking questions about who stands to gain when this is named in a way that prompts us to separate it from that.

So who benefits when such apparent compartments are made (“apparent” coz we all know Don Draper’s voice and I’m sure Mercedes is banking on the fact that, no matter what you tell me, I’ll still see him in that skinny black tie, smoking with a drink in hand, feet up on his desk, whenever I hear their commercial…) and how do we then make and police them? These are the questions we ought to be asking, I think, to figure out why (and when and for how long) we “see” those gas station attendants as performers.

Oh, and you really ought to be watching more TV if you’re trying to sort stuff like this out.